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Last Updated:5/22/03
Rethinking Foreign Policy: Lessons from Latin America

By Robert E. White

The reports of the Central American truth commissions are not just about events that took place against the backdrop of the cold war. They are about the United States today, and the role we intend to play in the world.

In early March, President Bill Clinton visited Central America to call attention to the devastation of Hurricane Mitch. In Guatemala City, the focus of the presidential visit shifted suddenly away from the random violence of nature to the purposeful violence of men. On the eve of Clinton’s visit, the United Nations-sponsored Guatemalan truth commission, known as the Commission for Historical Clarification, went public with its report which lays bare the savagery of the Guatemalan military.

President Clinton deserves high marks for his comments on the report of the truth commission. He did not vacillate, he did not equivocate; he stated that the United States had been wrong to support Guatemalan "military forces and intelligence units engaged in widespread repression," and he added, "We are determined to remember our past but never repeat it." Had Clinton ignored our government’s heavy responsibility for the Guatemalan tragedy he would have strengthened the hand of the still-powerful militarists and undercut struggling democratic forces not only in Guatemala but in all of Central America.

If we had to choose one place and time where U.S. policy towards Latin America went wrong, the date would be 1954 and the place Guatemala. Confronted with the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz, one that was less than subservient to U.S. pressures, the Eisenhower administration gave the green light to the Central Intelligence Agency to overthrow the constitutional order and install a military government, thereby igniting widespread rebellion. Over the next thirty-five years, the CIA bankrolled a war in which torture, murder and the firebombing of rural villages resulted in the deaths of 200,000 people, most of them defenseless Mayan Indians. CIA station chiefs, from their secret apartments inside the U.S. embassy, subsidized a war that consisted largely of a mindless series of military massacres. When U.S. policymakers at last lost enthusiasm for this pointless reign of terror, these station chiefs undercut and lied to U.S. ambassadors charged with helping to move the country towards peace.

As the New York Times reported (June 30, 1995), "American and Guatemalan officials, who long denied these links, now acknowledge that the CIA gave the Guatemalan military millions of dollars in the 1980s and 1990s, used some of the money as bribes to buy information from high-ranking military intelligence officers, and provided intelligence to the army for its long war against guerrillas, farmers, peasants and other opponents." In an unusually candid admission, the former inspector-general of the CIA, Fred Hitz, told Clifford Krauss of the New York Times (March 6, 1999), "It’s one of the saddest chapters of American relations with Latin America. The United States felt responsible for what it started by removing Arbenz and essentially we were trapped. We started something and didn’t know how to get off the train."

During this "noche más larga" for Latin democracy, the militaries of Central America arrogated to themselves the right to decide with deadly force who could and who could not participate in the political life of the country. In the name of anticommunism, U.S.-supported armies suppressed democracy, free speech, and human rights in El Salvador,Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. Torture and assassination of democratic leaders -including presidential candidates, journalists, priests and union officials became commonplace.

Official truth commissions have now issued reports on three Central American countries: El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The commissions were unanimous in finding the militaries of these countries guilty of a pattern of human-rights abuses in which unarmed civilians died at the hands of those sworn to protect them. Thousands of the finest leaders of Central America suffered torture and death for daring to take a stand against military terror. Nor did high office, whether secular or sacred, offer protection. Last year Bishop Juan Gerardi of Guatemala was bludgeoned to death two days after releasing a report documenting military massacres of Mayan Indians.

It was therefore an act of high courage and patriotism for the Guatemalan members of the Commission on Historical Clarification to write a report that not only finds the Guatemalan military responsible for mass murder and genocide but does not shrink from pointing out that the "government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some state operations." At the presentation of the report, the commission’s German coordinator and former UN official, Christian Tomuschat, said their investigations revealed that "until the mid-1980s there were strong pressures from the United States to keep in place the archaic and unjust socioeconomic structures of the country," adding that the United States and the CIA supported some "illegal state operations."

The report, titled "Guatemala: Memory of Silence" makes grim reading. (To view the report on-line, see HTTP://HRDATA.AAAS.ORG/CEH/REPORT/ENGLISH.) It shows that the United States was not backing one side in a civil war but rather a campaign of official terror. Of the more than 200,000 victims, the commission found that the army and other state agents killed 93 percent. With direct orders from the government’s highest echelons and the military high command, soldiers carried out a scorched-earth policy burning Mayan villages and throwing the still-living victims into common burial pits. Declassified documents reveal that Washington knew of these acts of genocide yet our government continued its assistance to the Guatemalan military.

Although the Department of State and the Defense Intelligence Agency must accept their share of responsibility for the Central American tragedy, the Guatemalan truth commission was right to single out the CIA for special mention. Between 1965 and 1981, I served in our embassies in Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. I watched as the CIA recruited dozens of paid informants from the right-wing fringes of Central American society. These ideologues regarded labor union leaders threatening a strike or student activists protesting the closing of a newspaper as agents of subversion. I watched as CIA reports to Washington characterized as Communist or Communist sympathizers, brave men and women whose only crime was to work for the restoration of democratic government and against the U.S.-supported military dictator. Worst of all, I watched as the CIA shared its "intelligence" with the leaders of these military regimes. Not unnaturally these authorities regarded any person fingered in an official CIA report as a legitimate target for persecution, even death.

Many foreign service officers did their best to bring some sense of proportion and balance to the U.S. presence in Central America. We sent analytical reports pointing out that the people who stood for change in Central America were not necessarily enemies of the United States. We noted that most of their leaders took their inspiration from our democratic institutions and from our elected leaders. Our reports recommended less identification with the military and economic groups which were systematically looting these countries, and more understanding and identification with the forces of change. Of these diplomats, the first and most important was Viron P. Vaky who, on returning to the State Department from a tour of duty in Guatemala in 1968, wrote a memorandum that put the crucial question, "Is it conceivable that we are so obsessed with insurgency that we are prepared to rationalize murder as an acceptable counterinsurgency weapon?"

The answer was yes. Neither Vaky’s memorandum nor the efforts of many career diplomats over the years had much of an impact. The Pentagon and the CIA were invulnerable to normal policy constraints as they carried out their crude strategy of counterinsurgency. As the Guatemalan truth commission stated, "The National Security Doctrine formed part of the anti-Soviet strategy of the United States in Latin America. In Guatemala, this doctrine first found expression as antireformist, then as antidemocratic and culminated in criminal counterinsurgency." The School of the Americas and other like-minded institutions taught the militaries of Central America to attack not only guerrillas but also citizens who insisted on their constitutional rights of free speech and assembly.

Never in the history of Latin America has a country or group of countries suffered such concentrated death and destruction as the United States, through its proxy armies in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, inflicted on Central America during the 1980s. More than 150,000 civilians were killed in these countries. Hundreds of millions of dollars of property and productive capacity were destroyed. The environment devas tated. Two million refugees, desperate to escape the violence, fled to our borders and entered as illegal immigrants.

The terrible effects of our policies were felt not only in Central America but here at home. With CIA director William Casey in the lead, the Reagan administration brushed aside peace overtures from the Salvadoran revolutionaries and the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The CIA created, trained and paid a counterrevolutionary army composed largely of former members of the hated Somoza National Guard and pressured the government of Honduras to permit the contras the use of its territory. Over the next five years, the Reagan administration did its best to conceal from the American public its policies and actions designed to overthrow the Sandinista government. When a frustrated Congress cut off all funding to the Nicaraguan contras, President Reagan authorized the CIA to sell arms to Iran and to use the profits to support the Nicaraguan contras. This presidential action appeared to violate the exclusive right to control the purse given to Congress by the Constitution. According to the independent counsel on Iran-contra, Lawrence Walsh, this action brought President Reagan "within range of impeachment." The death of CIA director Casey removed the key witness to President Reagan’s direct involvement and a constitutional crisis was thereby averted.

Even so, the number and rank of officials brought low by Iran-Contra was impressive: Indictment of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, a guilty plea and suspended sentence for national security adviser Robert MacFarlane, conviction on multiple felony accounts of national security adviser John Poindexter and his aide Oliver North, a plea bargain that reduced felony charges to misdemeanors for Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and CIA officer Alan Fiers, the felony conviction of CIA official Clair George, and the indictment of CIA officer Dewey Clarridge. And in what Walsh believed was "the last card in [the]coverup", President George Bush issued what might be described as a clandestine presidential pardon for the chief offenders, signed on New Year’s eve, 1986, with no press or photographers allowed.

Our Central American involvement shook the faith of many citizens in their ability to influence the course of events through then-elected representatives. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan has written in his excellent book On the Law of Nations, "Here we come upon an anomaly. As the United States became more committed to the advancement of democratic values in the world at large, it came more and more to do so by means of covert strategies, concealed from the world and not least from the American public. This is not difficult to explain; it is difficult to defend. It costs too much, it achieves too little; and it gives power to presidents to do things that come to seem merely extralegal, rather than illegal. Not lawless, simply above the law. The intelligence community cannot help but make presidents feel this is what they are there for."

During the Cold War, with the division of the world into Communist and anti-Communist, enemy and friend, the United States gradually abandoned the rules which had traditionally governed relations between civilized states. U.S. foreign policy left the path of judicious application of diplomatic influence and respect for sovereignty, judicial equality, and territorial integrity. In place of these time-tested principles of international conduct, the United States directed the preponderance of its resources toward strengthening foreign military establishments at the expenseof civilian in- stitutions throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Overseas, the bulk of our energies were dedicated to the fighting of an ill-defined communism, usually designated as subversion, through huge CIA stations, military missions, and public safety programs. Of necessity, secrecy and lies went hand-in-hand with these stealthy operations.

This trend towards less accountability has gathered pace and scope since the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago. State Department appropriations have been slashed, consulates closed, political sections of embassies weakened while the number of CIA personnel assigned to embassies under diplomatic cover has doubled and tripled. In many embassies CIA operatives outnumber legitimate diplomats.

In 1998 the State Department budget was $5.4 billion. That same year Congress voted a 10-percent increase to the intelligence budget, bringing it up to approximately $30 billion. Then the Clinton administration, fearful of a political battle on national security, proposed a $112-billion increase for the Defense Department over five years. This increase comes at a time when the United States is already allotting $280 billion annually to defense spending, more than the next six heavy defense spenders combined.

With the threat of an expansionist Soviet Union behind us and with important opportunities to work through the United Nations for collective action against world disorder, our government instead seeks to discourage all "potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role" to quote a Defense Department study of 1992. Under this policy, the State Department suffers deep cutbacks and our dues to the United Nations go unpaid while the Defense Department and CIA, the least transparent and accountable units of our government carry out a parallel foreign policy in much of the world undisciplined by diplomacy or effective checks and balances.

The "diplomatic" tools at the Pentagon’s disposal include arms transfers, training courses, exercises, short-term deployments, humanitarian activities, and "military-to-military contact" programs. With often vague objectives and only a tenuous connection to U.S. security interests, these programs have grown enormously during the 1990s. Known variously as "peacetime engagement," "foreign military interaction" or even "defense diplomacy," they have involved the U.S. military in many new non-combat roles, among them peacekeeping, drug interdiction, law enforcement and policing, infrastructure building,disaster relief, environmental protection, and rebuilding postconflict societies.

The recent explosion of "peacetime engagement" programs has involved a rapid growth in the use of Special Forces Operations ("unorthodox" units such as Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs), which the secretary of defense’s Annual Report to Congress describes as "warrior diplomats capable of influencing, advising, training, and conducting operations with foreign forces, officials, and populations." Indeed, as Wayne A. Downing, a former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, told the Washington Post (July 13, 1998), Special Forces "are a direct instrument of US foreign policy. They may be the most direct and most involved, tangible, physical part of the U.S/ foreign policy in certain countries."

Despite the stated goals of extending and protecting democracy and human rights around the world, the U.S. military frequently complies with "requests" from brutal and corrupt dictatorships for training in "foreign internal defense" and controlling civilian disturbances. U.S. military teams are helping militaries "restructure"—offering services ranging from computer consulting to reforming command and control to rewriting doctrine and military codes of justice. Former president of Costa Rica and Nobel Prize winner Oscar Arias, speaking of the "reckless proliferation of weapons around the world", said, "for decades we have heard the leaders of developing nations speak eloquently of economic opportunity and democracy as birthrights, and then casually continue to abet the militarization that destroys them. Last year the US transferred worldwide $21.3 billion worth of military hardware and training. Some $15.6 billion of this total went to developing nations, and a record $8.3 billion to non-democratic regimes."

As illustrated by the Central American example, U.S. foreign policy has done grievous harm to those building blocks of world order that were our great post-World War II achievement. These building blocks include self-determination, pluralism, human rights, collective security, interdependence, multilateralism, international law, international and regional institutions, treaties, and economic growth. Add to that list the new issues we must place on our twenty-firstcentury foreign-policy agenda: common action to save our global environment; an international commitment to curb exploding population growth; multilateral agreement to control and to reduce to a minimum nuclear arsenals; an end to the "silent genocide" of third-world famine and plague; a ban on exporting arms to undemocratic countries; and a commitment to promote economic opportunity in the poorer nations by investing in education, health, and sustainable development.

In their place,Washington has substituted unilateralism, covert action, and the "can do" military salute. The first

step in confronting a dangerous trend is to document it. Our role in Central America provides the ideal example. The United States needs its own version of a truth commission on Central America not only to bring home to the American people the key role we played in the overthrow of the elected government of Guatemala, the formation of the death-dealing Battalion 316 in Honduras, the sponsorship of the decade-long butchery in El Salvador, the destruction of Nicaragua through the manufacture of a civil war and a long list of less spectacular disasters; but also to provide compelling evidence that the aggressive cold war foreign policy machinery of the United States needs a radical overhaul.

The United States needs a strong military to establish a cooperative framework for global security. It does not need to proliferate arms around the world. The United States needs to gather intelligence—that is, information—through capable diplomats and through clandestine collection such as spy satellites. It does not need to employ covert action except when the national survival is at stake.

How a nation is organized to conduct its foreign policy will determine to a great extent the nature of that policy. If we understand that national security in the post-cold war world is not to be found in unilateral build-up and clandestine operations, then we should drastically cut back the size and scope of foreign activities by the Pentagon and CIA and fix responsibility for the management of a coherent and accountable foreign policy with the secretary of state and the president.

This article is reprinted with permission from the June 4, 1999 issue of Commonweal magazine. c 1999 Commonweal.

On-line report of the Commission for Historical Clarification:

Robert E. White, a former ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay, is president of the Center for International Policy.

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